Marianne Thamm

And speaking of overindulging...

2007-08-23 08:57

Marianne Thamm

Our home is wedged between two busy Cape Town routes, one a highway and the other a bustling main artery that runs through several suburbs.

For the past two years, after every weekend, I have made a point of counting the number of buckled and mangled steel barriers, fences, flattened poles and grazed trees (some with crosses already nailed to them) along the short 15km or so route.

This Monday I counted three twisted stretches of barrier along the highway and one flattened traffic light at a busy intersection. I am willing to bet that alcohol or some other narcotic substance combined with speed (and probably youth and testosterone) played a role in all of these crashes. These accidents are so commonplace that they hardly make it to the papers so I can't say how many people died or were injured.

Just down the road is a very famous and popular old pub. The place is usually packed on Friday evenings and because it is located in a suburb, parking is a bit of a problem. On Fridays, just before 17:00, I have watched traffic cops slap pink tickets on illegally parked vehicles near the venue.

Of course, around midnight, or even later, when patrons stagger out of the pub, obviously drunk and clearly intent on driving their cars, there is not a single traffic patrol vehicle or policeman in sight.

I raise the above issues in light of the figures released by the Central Drug Authority in Pretoria this week. The study showed that a conservative estimate of the economic cost of alcohol abuse to the country is between R8.7 and R17.4bn per year and that South Africans are now ranked as one of the top ten narcotics and alcohol abusers in the world.

Immeasurable cost

At the launch of the study in Pretoria, Minister of Social Welfare, Zola Skweyiya, revealed that 7 000 people died annually on the country's roads because of alcohol abuse.

The personal cost of course is immeasurable as the pain of mothers, father, sisters, brother, husbands, wives and children who have lost a loved one (either through death, ill health or an irrevocable change of personality) because of alcohol seldom colours the bleak statistics.

Alcohol is also usually connected to other anti-social behavioural manifestations such as violence, abuse and risky sexual behaviour. Further stats released this week were that around ten million South Africans each drink about 20.1l per year - the equivalent of 62 bottles of spirits or 196 six-packs of beer.

So, Huston, we have a problem. Actually we have a national crisis.

But what do to about it?

Now I don't believe you can stop people (adults) from making choices about their lives. At least not if these are informed choices. But do the million of South Africans who seem to regularly drink themselves into a state beyond oblivion understand the consequences, risks, and costs? Do they care?

Celebrating drunkenness

We live in a society that condones and even celebrates drinking and drunkenness. It is generally quite socially acceptable. So, in this context can we blame drinkers for falling for the claims and images employed in alcohol advertising - the "feel good" or "status" triggers - that are used to encourage drinking and make it cool?

Perhaps some will say we need to drink to anesthetise the effects of the incredible stress of living in one of the most violent countries in the world. All well and fine but not when the cost and the consequences are so universally socially devastating.

A start is the Master Drug Plan, produced by the Central Drug Authority and aimed at creating provincial substance abuse forums and drug action committees. Skweyiya said these committees would aim to change to perceptions in communities. But it's going to be a long, long haul.

Warnings on alcohol containers would help (if you can read that is) and as much as people scoffed at these on cigarette packets, they did make a difference.

And the road carnage? There is no doubt that visible, zero-tolerance policing from a service that does not only operate from 9 to 5 will have a huge impact. Harsh penalties like confiscating drunken drivers' vehicles, cancelling their drivers' licences and imposing steep fines will also act as a deterrent.

And if only public transport were safe and efficient in this country... If only.

Then lastly, maybe we could just get the multi-multi billion trillion Rand alcohol industry in South Africa to spread some of their mega profits and sponsor, build and kit out casualty units at all public hospitals in the country where the drunk dead, dying and injured wash up at the weekends. Now that would go some way to alleviating the strain alcohol places on the public health system.

The rest is up to you.

Send your comments to Marianne.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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